Our Non-Binary House Share Is A Vital Safe Space

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Renting privately in London usually means moving more often than you want to, from one underwhelming flat to another, handing over around 40% of your income to a landlord who will invariably take several months to fix your boiler when it breaks in the coldest part of winter. 
For queer people, housing is especially challenging because we also face prejudice about who we are. Although it’s been illegal for landlords or estate agents to discriminate against LGBT+ people since the Equality Act was passed in 2010, it still happens. In 2018, a London letting agency refused to rent a flat to a lesbian couple who said they were told it was only available to straight couples. The same thing happened in 2013 to a lesbian couple on the Isle of Man. In 2014, a gay couple in London were rejected when the landlord informed them via text message that he was looking for "a regular couple". These are only the incidents that make the news. LGBT+ people who also experience racism or ableism, who are precariously employed or unemployed, or who have insecure immigration status, will be treated even worse by private landlords.
For non-binary people like me, renting can be complicated by the fact that our genders are not legally recognised – even though more than half of the estimated 500,000 British trans people are non-binary. A lack of legal recognition means that when it comes to bureaucracy, our existence is erased. We can’t have our gender accurately reflected on our passport or driving licence, or on the form you have to fill out to rent a house. 

The house was beautiful and I wanted us to have it. I didn't want to know how much prejudice the estate agent might be holding against trans people.

These issues came up when me and two non-binary friends moved house a few weeks ago. It was my fourth house move of the pandemic and I hope, as I do every time I move, that this will be my long-term home. A relationship breakup, unaffordable rent and trying to work from home in cramped London flats precipitated this latest move, into a beautiful house with a garden and high ceilings and lots of communal living space. My room is bright and big so, for the first time since COVID-19 struck, I am working at a desk which can fit my laptop and notebooks and a keyboard and a cup of tea, all at the same time.
It felt like an auspicious start when we found this place soon after beginning our house hunt. The house has everything we’d agreed we wouldn’t compromise on, like a separate living room, a garden and a bathtub. But when the estate agent emailed us the application form to fill out so we could put in an offer, my heart sank. 
The first question gave us five prefixes to choose from: Mr, Ms, Mrs, Miss, Dr. I use the gender-neutral prefix Mx – it was added as a legal option in 2011 by the Deed Poll service, is on my bank account and is sometimes available on other forms. But not this one. The sixth question was about the people who’d be renting the property and asked whether each person was "male or female".
I found out later that we took different approaches to that first form. I weighed up the risk that the estate agent wouldn’t rent the house to trans people against the fact that we are white, middle-class people in permanent employment and crossed out the "male or female" option, typing "non-binary" instead. Deliberately outing myself like this, I reasoned, was consistent with the information the estate agent would receive on that form about my job, with the they/them pronouns in my email signature and with the Mx prefix before my name on my bank account. My housemates, one of whom has legally transitioned gender, each selected their legal, binary gender.
When the estate agent called me a few days later to say our offer had been accepted, I was elated. But this was quickly tempered when he misgendered one of my friends on the phone. I wasn’t sure whether correcting him might make him hostile, or whether I’d have to explain our queerness to him right there and then, so I didn’t. The house was beautiful and I wanted us to have it. I didn’t want to know how much prejudice the estate agent might be holding against trans people.
As we went through the process of putting down a holding deposit and signing contracts, the estate agent continued to incorrectly gender me and my friends. I’d been open about being non-binary but though he’d not met me, he still gendered me – based, presumably, on my voice on the phone. It's not exactly the worst thing happening in the world right now but it elicits a small pang of discomfort every time. When the landlord’s maintenance team came over, they called me by the wrong pronouns and, amazingly, the wrong name; they then used this name to introduce me to the neighbours. Afraid of how they would react if I disclosed that I’m trans by sharing my pronouns, I kept quiet. Putting non-binary on a form for some estate agents had felt like an okay risk; outing myself as trans to people I’d be living next door to, with no idea of how they felt about queer people, did not. The price is that every time my neighbours greet me or talk about me to my housemates, they call me by the wrong name and pronouns.
This invisibility of non-binary people has led to many LGBT+ campaigners demanding that the government legally recognise non-binary genders. This demand is huge – a petition this year asking for it was signed by nearly 140,000 people (the government rejected it, saying there are too many "complex practical consequences"). 
There are different ways in which non-binary people want legal recognition. One is by adding ‘X’ gender markers to driving licences and passports, along with M and F (which have only been required on passports since the late 1970s). Gender began to be listed on passports when experts deemed that the rise of androgynous hairstyles and unisex fashion made it necessary. This year, X markers on passports were the subject of the first trans civil rights case to reach the Supreme Court. Including them would bring the UK in line with more than a dozen other countries including Australia, Iceland, India and Uruguay. 
Another way of recognising us would be by adding a non-binary gender option to the process of legal gender recognition in the UK. This is controlled by the Gender Recognition Act and is how adult trans men and women update the gender marker on their birth certificate. But Gender Recognition Act reform was mostly scrapped by the government in 2020, after three years of fierce debate, and didn’t include plans for non-binary legal recognition anyway. 

The state relies on the gender binary to uphold capitalism and commit violence against women and people of other marginalised genders. Non-binary people's existence is a threat to the order of things. We should be proud of that. Things currently suck.

However it may happen, non-binary legal recognition would not have prevented the predicament my housemates and I found ourselves in. An X gender marker in my passport would still have outed me as trans to a potentially unfriendly landlord, and having a non-binary birth certificate would not have allayed my fears about disclosing my transness to my new neighbours. Legal recognition would not mean that an estate agent who reads the they/them pronouns in my email signature would suddenly use them when referring to me. And like legal gender recognition for trans men and women, it’s likely that only the most privileged non-binary people would be able to access it anyway. Besides, why did the estate agent need to know our genders before renting us a flat in the first place? 
It’s only been a few weeks but I already feel better for having more space. Working from home feels less tiresome now. We’ve got a veg box and a cat and cook dinners for each other in the shiny new kitchen. And I’m living with other trans people. There is an ease and comfort in living with other queers that I do not take for granted. Creating queer living situations like this is amazing because gender and sexuality are not binary problems within my home. It’s a safe place. For me, it calls into question why we arbitrarily divide people into two genders when we’re in public and enforce those categories through the law and bureaucracy.
I can see the appeal of non-binary legal recognition as a short-term alleviation of the kind of discomfort I went through moving house but it won’t stop people being transphobic. In some situations, like when governments are hostile towards LGBT+ people, being identified as non-binary on my documents would put me in danger. The American Medical Association recommended this year that sex markers are dropped from the public part of birth certificates altogether, stating that they instigate discrimination, harassment and violence towards trans and intersex people.
By campaigning to be recognised within the current system, we help to legitimise it. The state relies on the gender binary to uphold capitalism and commit violence against women and people of other marginalised genders. Non-binary people’s existence is a threat to the order of things. We should be proud of that. Things currently suck.
An X gender marker won’t protect non-binary people from violence or discrimination any more than an F marker protects women. So why have gender markers at all?

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